TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances – Smashing Pumpkins on ‘Pulse Basement Jam’
Not many bands can boast that the third concert they ever played was opening for Jane's Addiction, but the Smashing Pumpkins were never like many other bands. When three-fourths of the Pumpkins' classic lineup -- that's frontman Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky -- hit the stage together for the first time at small local club in their hometown of Chicago all the way back in August 1988, the estimated crowd of 50 included Joe Shanahan, owner of the Cabaret Metro, a local institution.
Shanahan thought the Pumpkins showed promise, but the band was backed by a drum machine for that first show; without an actual person manning the kit, Shanahan didn't think they were ready for a show at the Metro. So Corgan recruited Jimmy Chamberlin, a percussionist from nearby Peoria, Ill., with a jazz background but some experience playing in rock bands. The Smashing Pumpkins were rewarded with two gigs at the Metro: a spot on that October's Rock Against Depression bill, followed by a slot opening for none other than Jane's Addiction, touring behind their major label debut 'Nothings's Shocking,' in November.
While it's widely believed the Jane's Addiction gig was the second time the Pumpkins ever performed live with Chamberlin, there was one other appearance before that legendary show. On Nov. 19, Billy and the boys (and girl) loaded up their van and drove up to Roselle, Ill., to tape a 10-song performance for 'Pulse,' a local cable access show filmed in the basement of the Roselle School of Music. It's not clear exactly when and how much of that performance aired on cable TV that year, but the entire gig later surfaced as bonus material on the Pumpkins' 2012 deluxe reissue of 'Pisces Iscariot,' a rarities and B-sides collection originally released in 1994, and has since surfaced on YouTube (of course).
The addition of Chamberlin's muscular, busy and cymbal-heavy style of playing had an immediate and massive impact on the Pumpkins' sound, which was still in its very earliest days of development. "We were completely into the sad-rock, Cure kind of thing [before Jimmy]," Corgan later recalled. "It took about two or three practices before I realized that the power in his playing was something that enabled us to rock harder than we could ever have imagined."
Considering that the Pumpkins would begin penning tunes for their debut album, 1991's 'Gish,' in less than a year, it's impressive proof of Corgan's prolific songwriting abilities that not a single song the band performed during their appearance on 'Pulse' made it on the 'Gish' track listing.
And while parts of the so-called "sad-rock, Cure kind of thing" were undeniably still part of the band's quickly evolving sonic blueprint -- Wretzky's bass playing in particular maintained a washed-out, flanger-heavy sound that drew comparisons to goth acts like Bauhaus and, yes, the Cure -- a more driving, neo-psych flavor could clearly also now be heard during the 'Pulse' gig.
In fact, the evolution can almost be heard from song to song; from the Joy Division-like repetitious dirge 'Nothing and Everything' (watch above) to 'She' (below), which comes off as a catchy, mid-tempo alt-rock jam that could've been a 'Gish' B-side, the 'Pulse' showing is like the missing link between the rarely heard, earliest days of the Pumpkins and their debut album.
There's a certain hesitancy in Chamberlin's playing -- which is to expected, considering that they've all been playing together for just a few months -- and the band loosens up to the edge of sloppy in some parts. But basically, the 'Pulse Basement Jam' is the definitive document of a very specific moment in the then-promising career of the Smashing Pumpkins -- and a wildly surreal and entertaining document at that.
No longer restricted to just playing along to a drum machine, Corgan, Iha and Wretzky -- baby faces all of them -- are free to stretch out, beginning their climb from a gloomy goth trio to a quartet of DayGlo indie rockers en route to their years leading the alternative nation, thanks to multi-platinum platters 'Siamese Dream' and 'Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.'
Of course, the cycle repeated itself when the Pumpkins ditch Chamberlin for a drum machine and turn back to a gloomy, goth-inspired sound for their fourth album, 'Adore,' but that's another story for another time.